Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cavern Point and Potato Harbor

Potato Harbor, looking down the coastline of Santa Cruz Island
5 miles loop, 450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: By boat from Santa Barbara, Oxnard, or Ventura. Island Packers runs boats to the islands that take a little over an hour for the crossing from Ventura.

The Channel Islands form one of the most unique national parks in the United States. Eight islands- six large, two small, lie off the coast of Southern California; five make up Channel Islands National Park. Santa Cruz is the largest island of both the archipelago and the park, stretching 22 miles long off the coast of Santa Barbara. Potato Harbor and Cavern Point is an easy hike to some spectacular terrain on the Santa Cruz, visiting cliff-side viewpoints of rocky islands and azure waters . The hike is a leisurely way to spend time on the island on a day-long boat tour.

My friend and I drove out to Ventura early in the morning to catch a 8:30 AM Island Packers boat to the island on a clear Southern California November day. A tinge of smog colored the horizon, preventing us from seeing the islands from the shoreline, but the sky itself was a deep blue that day. The boat passed by a small group of seals sunning on a buoy as it headed out of the harbor at Ventura and onto the ocean. The ride was a bit rocky on the undulating and poorly protected waters of the Santa Barbara Channel but wasn't rough to the point of discomfort; we were a little worried beforehand, having read some online reviews suggesting seasickness was not uncommon.

As the boat entered the middle of the channel, smog swallowed views of the yellow and brown Santa Ynez mountain on the mainland, plunging us into a sort of sunny mist. The boat passed in between two of a flotilla of oil rigs stationed in the Channel; it was oil drilling here that was responsible for a 1969 oil spill that was the worst in American history at that point, only later to be out-worsted by the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon accidents. The island of Anacapa soon came into view as well; we were able to distinguish the three islets that made up the island and we were able to spot Arch Rock off the coast of East Anacapa.

Around an hour into the ride, we finally spotted Santa Cruz, which emerged from the mist before us. The island looked quite large from the water, with high mountains looming in its interior and steep cliffs on its sides; as we approached closer, the cliffs became progressively larger and eventually blocked our views of the mountains. About an hour and fifteen minutes out from Ventura, the boat docked at Scorpion Anchorage, a kelp-filled cove of azure water set underneath the rocky cliffs of the island.

The Channel Islands
After docking at Scorpion, a park ranger briefed us on regulations relevant to day tripping on the island before letting us off to hike. The trailhead for the Cavern Point started next to the visitor center complex a couple hundred meters onto the island from the boat dock. It wasted no time in heading uphill, making a switchback before beginning to cut north across the windswept grassy hills of the island. As we began the climb, views of the valley of Scorpion Ranch and the sea cliffs next to Scorpion Anchorage began to emerge. As we began to approach the top of the hill, more of the burnt yellow slopes of Santa Cruz Island became visible; soon we could even see West Anacapa in the distance.

View from Cavern Point
The trail leveled out once it reached the top of the sea cliffs at Cavern Point and followed a fairly flat path a few meters back from the sea cliffs themselves. Looking back towards mainland California, we were able to catch a few glimpses of the Transverse Ranges rising above the smog; however, the California coast itself was hidden by a low-lying wall of gray particulates. We soon arrived at Cavern Point, a protruding section of cliff that provided sweeping ocean views to the west of Montanon Ridge, the mountainous spine of Santa Cruz. The trail stayed away from the cliff edge of the point itself- rangers had earlier warned us that the island's cliffs had a habit of collapsing without warning- but still offered a stunning panorama.

Cavern Point
Past Cavern Point, the trail dipped as it followed the cliffs along a small bay. Soon, the trail came to a T intersection, with the left fork heading back to Scorpion Anchorage and the right fork heading towards Potato Harbor. We took the right fork and followed the trail as it climbed a bit to regain the top of the cliffs along the coastline. Views of the mountains along the Santa Barbara coastline and of the dry grassy inland of Santa Cruz itself abound.

Santa Cruz
At one point, we admired a large rock that sat just off the coast while wondering what caused the distinctive white coloring of the otherwise reddish rock. After noticing many birds making trips to and from the rock, we finally realized that the white color was not some peculiar rock formation but just guano.

Santa Cruz coastline
The trail then came to a junction with a wide former road, a little over 2 miles from the start of the hike. The gravel path to the left led back to Scorpion Anchorage; the one to the right continued west. We took the right fork and continued on the road through a wide, grassy plain, just out of the sight of the ocean. Through this period of flat hiking, we could see over the top of the browned grass to both the mountains on the mainland and the high peaks of the island itself. Finally, a little over 2.5 miles into the hike, we came back to the coastline; taking a spur, we came to a promontory with an incredible view of mountains and blue water. On one side, we could see a sea cave at the bottom of a great cliff; on the other, a natural arch was carved into a fin of rock. We continued a little further to the end of the trail, where the old road terminated and a path led to another promontory that overlooked the round bowl holding the azure waters of Potato Harbor.

Approaching Potato Harbor
Potato Harbor, mainland California in the back
Aftering admiring the sun-kissed golden mountains and cliffs towering above the deepest blue waters of the Channel, we began our hike back to catch our mid-afternoon boat back to Ventura. At the junction with the coastal trail that we had come on, we veered right and continued on the wider road, which took us inland and gave us views of rolling hills of brown grass and gnarled trees growing in the shadier canyons. The trail became rocky at times and eventually began a gradual descent from the clifftop plateau into the canyon of Scorpion Ranch.

Interior Santa Cruz
At the end of the trail, we found ourselves in the verdant valley of Scorpion Ranch, where lilies grew by a stream. We walked through a campground in the valley and arrived at the Ranch itself, which had now been converted into a visitor center of sorts. While wandering about the ranch area before boarding our boat back to the mainland, we spotted a Channel Islands Fox, one of the many species endemic to the islands.

Channel Islands Fox
Little did we know that seeing the fox at the end of our hike was only the beginning of our exciting wildlife viewing that day. After boarding an Island Packers boat for our journey back to Ventura and venturing far out into the waters between Santa Cruz and the mainland, we looked back towards the island and saw a pod of dolphins following in our wake.

Dolphins from the boat ride back
We arrived in Ventura with just enough time to watch the sun set on the Channel and check out the visitor center before heading back to LA. The hike to Potato Harbor was easy, but certainly worth the price of a boat ride out to check out the wild and beautiful coast of this unique national park.

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